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1008 PD: Do the pastures get any greener than this?

Published on 30 June 2008

Pastures and grass silage packs are the mainstays on David Brewster’s Scottish dairy.

Throughout the year, the temperate Scottish weather will drop between 60 and 70 inches of rain on his more than 800 acres of pasture and cropland. The moisture is what makes his dairy farm and homeland exceptionally green.

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Yet when Brewster compares the confined, large-herd dairy systems he saw when he visited the U.S. three years ago, he says it’s hard to imagine the grass could be any greener than on his side of the fence, or the ocean in this case.

“With a little rain, 100 cows in a field can make a mess,” Brewster says. “So I can’t imagine what 1,000 cows would do.”

And yet part of the reason he doesn’t adopt a total confinement system and expand the herd to 500 cows relates to concerns Brewster and producers in the U.S. are facing – higher feed and input costs. He currently receives about 26 pence per liter, about $23.43 per hundredweight of milk. That’s up from $17.13 per hundredweight last year, but it’s still not enough.

“It seems we are getting a lot more for our milk, but our costs have risen dramatically as well,” Brewster says. “I don’t know how much better off we are with all the increases we’ve had since last year.”

Low milk prices are depressing Brewster’s profit margin, making it difficult for him to justify expanding.

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“With the costs we have – labor, fertilizer, fuel – it’s difficult for me to put up a new building and spend a lot of money,” he says. “I won’t get a return on it.”

So to supplement his dairy’s income Brewster has marketed what he does best – genetics. His herd has won more than 150 British national and local events. In six out of the past eight years, his cows have won “Most Overall Points” in these competitions.

Purchasing genetics from U.S. herds initiated his previous visit to the U.S. Then, while visiting in Wisconsin, Brewster purchased embryos from cow families such as Dellia, Raven, Elegance, Royalty and Alicia.

“What I’m really interested in is breeding cows,” Brewster says. “We are pedigree breeders.”

Brewster and a herdsman do all of the herd’s A.I. work. He is looking forward to the addition of a new parlor and a step-counting system that should help make heat detection even more efficient. Brewster admits he likes working with the cows, while his brother runs the farm’s other cropping operations. He does the milking by himself most days, and his hands-on work has produced a herd of mostly docile, quiet cows.

“If you treat cows well and you work with them everyday, they are going to be fairly quiet,” Brewster says.

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Yet, until visiting the U.S., Brewster says he thought, like other Scottish dairymen, that the reason U.S. producers got fewer lactations from their cows than the norm of four in Scotland was because of a lack of management. But he has since changed his mind about U.S. dairy management styles.

“When I went to see large dairy herds, I thought I was going to see a lot of rough cows,” Brewster says. “But the cows I saw were modern, well-managed cows. They were really looked after. I was really impressed. On that large of a scale, if you aren’t making money, you can lose a lot very quickly.”

Although he isn’t ready to expand, he’s also not ready to throw in the towel. Brewster Dairy is now in its fourth generation of family ownership. David’s father, Jack, a former dairyman, still meets with his sons once a month to plan the dairy’s business strategy and to review budgets. Jack says he doesn’t interfere with the day-to-day operational decisions, but he does enjoy stopping by to look over their shoulders.

“There’s a lot of money involved in farming today,” Jack says. “Any fool can spend money, but spending it to your advantage is the key.”

David says the keys to success in the future will be to be more efficient and increase milk yields. He plans to push toward 12,000 liters per cow, or more than 26,000 pounds per cow, through careful genetic selection.

“We’re in it for the long term,” David says. PD

Walt Cooley
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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